Getting Leadership Onboard for Appreciation at Work

May 17, 2021 9:00 am Published by

Whenever I speak to a group of employees, supervisors, or HR managers, inevitably I hear something like the following:

“What am I supposed to do if our management team isn’t interested in appreciation? They are focused on achieving goals and the bottom line – they think communicating appreciation is stupid and a waste of time.”

Many leaders aren’t opposed to appreciation. They just don’t understand what communicating appreciation really looks like in daily work life, what it isn’t, and what they can realistically expect appreciation to accomplish in their organization.

In recent years, the emphasis has been more on employee recognition and developing systems for recognizing their team members for work well done. In fact, experts in human resource management estimate 90% of all businesses and organizations in the U.S. have some form of employee recognition program.

The problem is — in terms of helping employees feeling truly valued and appreciated — employee recognition programs have failed. While recognition and reward programs have proliferated, the level of employee engagement in job satisfaction has actually declined over the same time period. This is largely because most employee recognition activities are generic (everyone gets the same award organizationally in contrast to being individualized and personal) and ultimately, come across as inauthentic.

As a result, emphasizing authentic, personal appreciation has become the new focus in many work environments. But there remain four major misconceptions about appreciation that are held by many leaders.

Misconception #1: Money Is the #1 Motivator for All Employees

This belief is reflected when a leader responds to the suggestion of exploring how to effectively communicate appreciation to employees with the remark: “We pay them. That’s their appreciation.”

The truth is, money isn’t an effective motivator for many people. And the research is definite. When reviewing over ninety studies over a time span of 120 years, the results found that the relationship between salary level and job satisfaction is very weak – how much money employees make accounts for only 2% of the factors contributing to how much they enjoyed their work.

Most managers (89%) think employees leave for more money, but only 12% of employees say they leave for money. A full 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite lack of appreciation as a key factor.

A study completed by the McKinsey consulting group, found that non-monetary incentives were more motivating to employees than monetary rewards. They found that praise from the employee’s manager, attention from leaders, and the opportunity to lead projects were more motivating and rewarding than financial incentive, whether it was an increase in base salary, bonuses, or stock options.

Misconception #2: Recognition and Appreciation Are the Same

As generally implemented, recognition is very different from authentic appreciation. Here is what we found: 

Recognition is largely about behavior. “Catch them doing what you want and recognize it,” the recognition books say. The sole focus is on the employee’s behavior and the manager’s behavior (observe and reinforce). This is an “ok” starting point, but doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

The primary emphasis of recognition is improving performance. The goal is for employees to do more or better-quality work. Often, the focus is on what is good for the company or the manager (who looks good when the team performs well). Many employees see this – and resent it.

Appreciation focuses on performance plus the character qualities of the team member and the person’s intrinsic value. Team members can be valued and receive appreciation both for doing tasks well, and even when they don’t perform well. This is important because only the top 10-15% of employees are recognized for high level performance, which leaves 50-60% of your solid middle team members who never hear anything. Appreciation fills the gaps.

Appreciation is based in a person-to-person relationship. We don’t believe that an organization (an entity) can truly appreciate an employee or team member. That is why so many employees react negatively to recognition programs—the recognition doesn’t feel genuine. Employee recognition programs work well when they are used for the purpose for which they were originally designed—to recognize and reward achieving performance goals. Recognition, however, does not work well when organizations try to use large organizational programs to make employees feel valued individually. In fact, this often creates negative backlash (sarcasm and resentment) within the organization.

Misconception #3: The Goal of Appreciation Is to Make Employees Feel Good

This belief seems to be held more frequently by individuals on the cynical side who disparagingly condemn all appreciation as being ‘touchy feely.’ “Work is about getting things done: I don’t care how people feel about it,” is a commonly stated mantra. In reality, making others feel good is not the goal of appreciation (although it is often a secondary benefit).

The true goal of appreciation is to create a healthy, well-functioning organization. Appreciation is like oil in a machine. It helps the parts work together more effectively, reduces friction and heat, decreases sparks, and helps various components work together smoothly and efficiently.

When team members truly feel appreciated, the practical benefits to an organization are numerous and easily identified. In fact, in our book, The Vibrant Workplace, we cite multiple research findings including lower staff turnover, higher productivity, increased profits and higher customer service ratings.

Misconception # 4: The Responsibility to Communicate Appreciation Falls on Managers and Supervisors

Not true. First, putting the full weight and responsibility on the shoulders of leaders is too burdensome.  Many supervisors oversee a large number of employees and can’t be the sole source of appreciation for them all.

Secondly, we have found that employees both want to receive appreciation from their supervisors and their colleagues. Since appreciation is from person to person and not tied to the organizational chart, it can flow in any direction, regardless of the individuals’ positions.

We have found that team members value and enjoy learning each other’s appreciation languages and being able to support and encourage one another.

Ideas to Get Started

Where do you start? Here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Begin to model showing appreciation to others
  • Gather together a few interested friends and begin to apply the concepts together as a group


Research has shown that when employees feel valued and appreciated, good results occur within the workplace, many of which have positive financial benefits for the organization. The foundation of authentic appreciation is respecting and valuing each employee for who they are as a person, in addition to the contributions they make to the organization.

When appreciation is communicated from this perspective, all stakeholders win – the employee, the supervisor, the organization, customers and clients, as well as the family and friends of the employee who get to enjoy a more positive, encouraged individual.

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May 17, 2021 9:00 am


  • Rick Maurer says:

    Paul –

    Great article. I found the breadth of the list of misconceptions eye-opening. Thanks.

    I read your article through the lens I have been using for the past many months, and that is seizing moments of possibility. One reason leaders might be reluctant to show appreciation is that they might feel incompetent in that area. “I’ll come across as a fake.” “I’ll look silly.” “I fear that staff might be thinking, ‘Watch out, the boss just read another book.’ ” And so on.

    My advice to myself and to my clients has been to start small. Stay in or at least very close to your comfort zone when you show appreciation. So that if you do feel silly etc., you can still step back and learn from the experience. Think of golfers who spend time on the driving range where they can try things out without any risk.

    My buddies in gestalt refer to it as a “safe emergency.” There is some discomfort, but not a lot. It is a great way to learn a new skill or hone an old one.

    Rick Maurer

    • Paul White says:

      Rick, thanks for your thoughtful comments and suggestion. Clearly, feeling not competent (and generally uncomfortable) are part of the challenge here.

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